Land disappears from under settlers’ noses

“We feel like we are being abandoned on a desert island.”

Those were the words of a Great Alloniers Trading Corporation (GATCO) settler in Kampung Serampang Indah, lamenting their unresolved and little-known land issue, which surfaced May this year.

55-year-old Manickam is just one of many National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW) members who joined a sugar cane plantation scheme here back in 1979 after paying RM7500 each.

But 30 years down the road, these settlers never really reaped the benefit of their investment, as GATCO, the sugar cane company, folded due to bankruptcy during their first harvest season.

And to make matters worse, the court in May has ruled that the land now belongs to Lotus, a private company that has purchased the land, which spans a massive 4,000 acres.

The settlers now face a possibility of being asked to leave the land without any kind of compensation or return for their RM7500 investment.

“If we are animals, we might be shoved into a cage. But we are humans, we have a family to feed, we have children,” says Manickam, making no attempt to hide his anger.

“According to the original agreement, each of us were entitled 10 acres of land to plant sugar cane, but after the company folded, a new agreement was drafted in whereby we were given 8 acres of land each, where the sugar cane was replaced with rubber trees,” says John Cantius, a second generation settler.

“All these years, we have managed to make ends meet by independently rubber tapping,” explains 64-year-old Raman, who was the first person in the whole country to join GATCO’s scheme.

The plantation workers have appealed to the local leaders repeatedly but a solution is yet to appear, with time running out for the settlers.

“The same rhetoric is used everytime an election comes. They promise us a solution, but it never comes. We have been abandoned by the Barisan Nasional government,” says fellow settler Nordin Ahmad Bakri.

“When we appealed to Zainal (Abidin Ahmad, assemblyperson for Sungai Lui) for help on the matter, we were told Lotus now owns this land and we need to buy the land back from Lotus,” says K Ulaganathan.

“Who are they to buy a land that is supposed to belong to us?”

Their queries regarding their RM7500 investment have also fallen on deaf ears. They were told that their investment has gone null and void since GATCO’s bankruptcy.

“RM7500 was not a small amount. Definitely not back in 1979,” says John, who is continuing developing the land that he inherited from his father.

John also stresses that the land wouldn’t be as fertile and attractive to private companies today if weren’t for their initial investment and hardwork.

“It is due to our initial investment that overseas private companies such as the Netherlands Finance Company sanctioned loans to develop this land,” John adds.

The village falls under the parliamentary constituency of Jelebu, which is the seat of the current Information, Communication, and Culture Minister Rais Yatim.

Video by Arvind Raj